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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Ajmal Kasab: India's most important prisoner

May 5, 2010

Mohammad Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving member of the 10-man group which attacked several Mumbai landmarks.

The trial of Mohammad Ajmal Kasab, the only surviving gunman to have carried out the Mumbai terror attacks, has finally ended. Well, nearly.

After a year-long trial that heard testimony from more than 600 witnesses, the 22-year-old Pakistani national has been found guilty. Ajmal Kasab has been convicted of 86 charges, including waging war on India.

During his first appearances in court close to a year ago, the defendant appeared cheerful, his demeanour cool, calm and relaxed. He smiled a lot and appeared unphased. A year on, Ajmal Kasab sat motionless in Mumbai's Arthur Road court as judge ML Tahiliyani summarised his 1,522-page judgment.

Sentencing a man blamed for carrying out the worst terrorist attack on Indian soil to date, Judge Tahiliyani said it was not a simple case. Referring to the prosecution's evidence of complex planning and the obvious complexity of the actual operation carried out on November 26, 2008, the judge argued that it couldn't have been carried out by ordinary criminals. It was, he claimed, the work of those who wanted to wage war.

While Ajmal Kasab has been found guilty, his co-accused - Indian nationals Faheem Ansari and Sabahuddin Shaikh - have both been acquitted due to a lack of evidence. While the case against the co-accused will have to be rebuilt, Ajmal Kasab has already told investigators that the duo provided maps of Mumbai to commanders of Pakistan-based terror group, Lashkar-e-Toiba. On this basis the prosecution argued that both men were responsible for providing logistical support and ground-based assistance to operators in Pakistan. But Judge Tahiliyani didn't agree. He countered that there were better maps available on the internet than those that Ajmal Kasab claims came from Ansari and Shaikh. Appearing on an Indian news channel after his acquittal, Fahim Ansari's wife said that if her husband is indeed a terrorist connected to Lashkar-e-Toiba, it would have been proven in court.

Every day of this trial has made headlines across India. Media outlets have pondered each and every meticulous detail of court proceedings, and there was great expectation across the country that all three men would be found guilty. The government has already gauged that there will be widespread anger and disappointment about the result in relation to the co-accused. Just hours after the sentencing external affairs minister FM Krishna vowed to continue to search for the crucial pieces of evidence that will unequivocally link both Ansari and Shaikh to the gunmen who carried out the attacks.

The punishment

Judge Tahiliyani found Ajmal Kasab guilty of nearly 100 charges but he did not move to hand down a punishment for the crimes. The accused, his defence and the prosecution will appear at Arthur Road again in the coming days. They will argue their cases in light of the possible punishments. For Ajmal Kasab there are only two ways it can go: life in prison or the death penalty.

Irrespective of the punishment that will be meted out to him, in the Indian court system Ajmal Kasab has the right to appeal. This makes it all the more likely that his will be a protracted case. The fate of the only surviving terrorist responsible for carrying out the worst attack in India's history could take years to determine.

Protected prisoner

Since his arrest Ajmal Kasab has been India's most important prisoner. Fundamentally he is the lynchpin of the government's argument that Pakistani-based terror groups were behind the November 26 attacks. Ajmal Kasab has been kept in solitary confinement and under 24-hour surveillance at Mumbai's Arthur Road prison.

Media outlets have been scathing about the government's "soft" treatment of the country's number one prisoner. When Ajmal Kasab complained about the quality of the food he was receiving behind bars, authorities reportedly agreed to serve him chicken biryani. His meals are ordered from eateries around the city but the identity of the customer is of course, kept top secret.

Late last year the Times of India newspaper reported that it was costing $21,000 a day to keep Ajmal Kasab alive. Further costs of his incarceration have included the building of a special cell inside the Arthur Road jail precinct, a secret chamber and an alternative courthouse for his trial, and a separate prison cell inside Mumbai's JJ Hospital premises where he has been admitted from time to time for medical treatment.

Mumbaikars have expressed concern and anger over the special treatment of the convicted terrorist. They say nearly 18 months after Mumbai was attacked, the city's police have received few resources to further secure the country's financial capital and guard against another attack.

India-Pakistan relations

Ajmal Kasab and his confessions to investigators have been a fierce point of debate between India and Pakistan for the past 18 months. His confessions have further convinced Indian authorities that Pakistan-based terror groups are intent on sparking a full-blown conflict between the two countries. On the other hand, Islamabad continues to press New Delhi for more evidence.

Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) is a Pakistan-based terror group that has been blamed for the November 26 attacks. Ajmal Kasab has confessed to training at LeT camps in Pakistan and receiving instructions from the group's commanders. LeT operatives were reportedly watching live telecasts of the attacks and directing Ajmal Kasab and the nine other gunman via telephone connections. Numbers retrieved from mobile phones found at the various crime scenes were traced back to locations in Pakistan's port city of Karachi.

Commenting on Kasab's sentencing India's home minister P Chidambaram said the "judgment itself is a message to Pakistan that they should not export terrorism to India". Controlling these terror groups and their sprawling networks was one of India's key stipulations when it agreed to resume ministerial level talks with Pakistan last week. New Delhi walked away from peace talks with Islamabad after the Mumbai terror attacks. Since then it has stood firm on its policy that Pakistan must take responsibility, and action, for stamping out the terror groups operating from its soil and intent on causing death and destruction in India. Rory Metcalfe from the Lowy Institute says that Pakistan has made numerous promises to India to eradicate, or at least curb, terror groups working within its territory. He also adds that many of those promises have been made due to great pressure from the United States.

India says there is ample evidence available in the public sphere that connects Pakistani state apparatus to the creation of terror networks like LeT. New Delhi-based defence analyst K Subrahmanyam says that India has been warning its neighbour for quite some time of the difficult challenge of controlling these terror groups once they grow out of their infancy.

The Kasab verdict is not expected to have a substantial impact on relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. Ajmal Kasab's sentencing comes after a string of incidents that have already tested the newly renewed bilateral relationship between India and Pakistan. Just days after prime minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani agreed to restart ministerial level talks, an Indian civil servant was arrested on charges of espionage. Just days after that, a fresh terror alert was released for New Delhi. Indian and foreign officials claim a terror attack is "imminent".

Keeping guard

The policing and monitoring of public areas has been ramped up across the country since the Mumbai terror attacks, but areas such as marketplaces, frequently singled out by terrorists, still remain vulnerable. Many, like the ones that have been named in the latest terror alert for New Delhi, are also popular with foreigners.

These vibrant, colourful areas have been ideal locations for terrorists for years. Despite more police presence, cordons and security checks, markets like New Delhi's Chandni Chowk and Sarojini Nagar have multiple entry points and suffer from choking traffic and congestion. That continues to make guarding them an extremely difficult job. K Subrahmanyam says the point officials in cities like New Delhi now have to consider is at which point do they attempt to stop the terrorist. He says the key for counter-terrorism teams is to isolate would-be terrorists at the outer perimeters of the attack area to foil their plans to cause extensive damage in densely populated and crowded areas.


In recent days foreign embassies, including Australia's, have lifted their travel warnings for New Delhi. They say they have credible evidence that a terror attack is "imminent".

India's interior ministry has stepped up security across the capital. It says intelligence agencies have intercepted information that Pakistan-based terror group Lashkar-e-Toiba is instructing Kashmir-based fighters to carry out attacks in crowded areas of the capital.

Despite the warnings, Delhi-ites are going about life as usual. Like Indians across the country they say they have lived with the threat of terrorism for years, long before the attacks on America on September 11, 2001.

New Delhi is a city of 12 million people. By most accounts, the average Delhi-ite seldom considers terrorism or contemplates an attack that would affect them. One local said that it is all a matter of chance and the likelihood of being in the wrong place at the wrong time in a city as big as New Delhi is very, very slim. Delhi-ites appear determined to continue to live and work as they always have. For them, and Indians across the country, it's the best way to show their resilience and determination to fight external and home-grown threats.

By Nidhi Dutt Australia Network's India correspondent.

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